Grand Forks photography recently took a stroll along the English Coulee in Grand Forks a day after a storm rolled through and captured these spectacular shots.
Peregrine falcons have been showing up in Grand Forks since 2005. This is one of the falcons that is nesting in the water tower on the campus of the University of North Dakota. It could be Marv, the patriarch of Grand Forks’ peregrine clan the past couple of years. Named after Marv Bossart, a Fargo TV personality who died in 2013, Marv was hatched that same year in Fargo and showed up in Grand Forks to mate the next spring. Its identity was confirmed by Tim Driscoll, Grand Forks raptor expert and licensed bander, who banded and named Marv in 2013. Photographer Michael Bogert captured these nice images recently on the UND campus.
A good indicator that spring has arrived is the appearance of animals that have either gone south in the fall or the emergency of those that have made themselves scarce during the long winter. Canada geese are among the former and moose the latter. Bald eagles, however, can be counted in both groups. Some winter along the Red River of the North, while others escape the cold temperatures for several months of the year. Here’s some of what photographer Michael Bogert has seen since spring has officially arrived.
Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons has an eye for wildlife, so it’s no surprise that he recently visited the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley and the Como Park Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul. The Minnesota Zoo, which opened in May 1978, is a state agency that has been a destination home to more than 4,700 animals — many endangered — in award-winning exhibits since its opening. The Como Park Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory are located in Como Park and are owned by the city of St. Paul and are a division of St. Paul Parks and Recreation. It was established in 1897 with the donation of three deer, and today has 25 animal habitats featuring orangutans, gorillas, giraffes, lions, tigers and more. Check out more photos from Russ Hons here.
Since the 1930s, beginning with our great-grandfather’s clan, family members have heard wolves howl, grouse drum, deer blow, coyotes yip and bark, owls hoot, frogs croak.
Then, there are the frequent, mysterious and sometimes scary unidentified critters who scream or moan or bray worse than almost all of our impressive presidential candidates.
Most of the time we hear the sounds at night, and we always ask in a frightened tone: “What the hell was that?”
The question usually comes as we sit around the fire pit with eyes wide, goosebumps crawling and whatever hair we have left standing stiff on neck or arm. Sometimes, when our flashlights pierce the black woods, we might catch a glimpse of a shape. Typically, we just hear the beasts, go to bed and then look for evidence of their presence the next morning. You see, we just need to know what shares the woods.
Critters deposit proof they exist all over the woods, you know. We all enjoy attempting to decipher the size, sex, weight and other characteristics of animals while examining tracks and scat or other markings.
These days, however, the evidence we find on the ground takes a distant second place when compared with an animal’s image caught on camera. In fact, our trail camera images are the next best thing to actually witnessing the ultimate ― usually explosive ― close encounter.
Humans have tried to capture wildlife on camera for more than 100 years. I know a few people who’ve gotten really good at shooting critters with a camera, but photographers such as Steve Foss in Ely, Minn., are the rare specimens who are patient, lucky and woods wise ― qualities most humans in 2016 don’t possess, especially those who live in New York or California or any community with a population of more than 368 souls. That’s just the way it is, right?
These days, technology, for better or usually worse, allows humans to capture wildlife with a digital camera. And get this — some trail cameras (aka game cameras) contain Wi-Fi capability that can send photos directly to your cell phone. Wow. Isn’t high tech grand?
I can vouch that trail cam technology has advanced quite a bit the last dozen or so years. For example, my first two trail cams, if memory serves, required at least 62 D-cell batteries to operate; it captured photos on black-and-white film ― film ― remember film? The crappy cameras were a hassle to use, ate those 62 D-cell batteries daily for breakfast and generally were nothing but frustration, which is why I burned them both in the fire pit.
But things change, thank God.
A month or so ago, my brother and I were discussing where to place his new trail camera, a camouflaged box of digital wonder. Its 40 passive infra-red LEDS gives the thing an insect kind of quality. Its sensor won’t spook critters at night at a distance of 50 feet. And, amazingly, it detects movement so subtle even snowflakes can’t hide from the lens.
But wait, there’s more! The camera contains a time-lapse mode, will shoot video at 30 fps and a ton of other stuff we haven’t figured out because the contraption requires someone younger than 16 to program the thing.
We retrieved the SD card a week ago. As you can see by the images (some are fuzzy, others are crisp), man does the camera work. Brett paid $80 for it in a half-price deal. Nephew Cale has a similar trail cam. (His captured an image of a lynx last winter that will knock your socks off. Maybe he’ll let me publish it some day.)
I intend to get one soon. We’re already discussing where to place them, a pretty fun puzzle in itself.
Who knows what animals, birds and other creatures we will capture?
As everybody knows, there have been quite a few Sasquatch sightings in the area south of Effie. I’m not making this up. Perhaps … who knows … we can catch one on a trail cam. Don’t snicker. Anything is possible with high technology. The truth is out there.
U.S. Highway 85 is North Dakota’s deadliest highway. If you’re not familiar with it, it is the road that runs north and south along the western edge of the state, from our border with Canada to our border with South Dakota, through the North Dakota Bad Lands, some of the state’s most scenic and fragile landscapes.
Even though it passes through what has historically been the most remote area of our state, it has the most fatal accidents, the most injury accidents and the most property damage accidents of any highway in North Dakota.
The reason? It’s now the main drag through the Bakken oil boom country, and it now has some of the highest traffic volumes in the state.
Really big trucks.
Lots of them.
And drivers who are often young and reckless, sometimes really, really drunk, always in a hurry and don’t have a clue about driving in our weather conditions.
More often than not, when you read in the paper of a traffic fatality in Bakken Country, you’ll learn that the accident was caused by a relative newcomer to the state. Problem is, also more often than not, the victim in a fatal accident is an innocent North Dakotan who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when somebody ran a stop sign, or passed a truck when they shouldn’t have, or was driving one of those huge oil tanker trucks in a careless manner.
State officials recognized the problem a few years ago and began the process of upgrading the highway to make it safer. A project to make the highway four lanes wide is under way between the Bakken’s two hot spots, Williston and Watford City. By the end of 2016, drivers should be using all four lanes of the new highway.
Next up is the 60-mile stretch through the Bad Lands, from Watford City down to Interstate 94 at Belfield. The DOT is completing an environmental impact statement on that project now, mostly necessitated by the fact that the highway passes through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grasslands and calls for upgrading or replacing the historic Long X Bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River.
All of those things have caught the attention of the public, including conservation organizations, wildlife groups and the state’s Game and Fish Department, because Highway 85 is not just the deadliest highway in the state for humans — it is the deadliest for wildlife as well.
Game and Fish has long been concerned about the number of animal-vehicle collisions on the highway. Rubber tire disease claimed so many bighorn sheep a couple of years ago that Game and Fish actually had to pick up and move the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger.
Now, the proposed bigger, wider and faster highway through some of the state’s most important big game habitat will mean increased distances for wildlife to cross, greater traffic volumes and potentially higher speeds, and the Game and Fish Department is paying close attention to the design of the new road.
Everybody recognizes the safety need. Separating the lanes of northbound and southbound traffic should reduce accidents and fatalities. But it is going to be a lot harder for the critters to make safe passages across the four lanes, increasing the likelihood of animal-vehicle collisions. As a result, North Dakota will get its first-ever “wildlife crossings” as part of the project.
Construction of the first one is already under way as part of the first phase of the project. It’s just south of the Missouri River bridge at Williston, where the highway passes through the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Area.
According to Bruce Kreft, a department wildlife biologist who’s been working with the DOT on design of the crossing, it will be a 15-foot high, 40-foot wide underpass, with appropriate fencing along the highway to encourage wildlife to cross under the highway instead of over it.
It’s essentially a moose crossing, recognizing the growing number of moose (mooses? meese?) in the Williston area. Kreft says the department is seeing a number of moose fatalities in the area, and moose are more likely to use an underpass than an overpass, hence the design.
Game and Fish Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams says his department is mostly concerned about keeping people safe. “These are good-sized critters,” he says, and we need to do everything possible to keep them off the highway. Williams said similar crossings in Montana have proven successful.
Kreft, who’s been to Montana with North Dakota DOT officials to look at crossings similar to the one being built now, says deer also will use the underpasses, and there’s a healthy deer population in that area of the state as well.
For the second phase of the widening project, through the Bad Lands, Game and Fish is proposing five additional crossings. Topography and deference to the species of critters likely to use the crossings dictate whether they will be overpasses or underpasses. For example, a crossing proposed for just north of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park would be an overpass, basically a bridge over the highway, where bighorn sheep, deer and elk would make their way across safely.
“Deer will go through a lot of things, but bighorns like an open space for crossing,” Kreft says. “They will use the bridge.”
Kreft said other proposed crossings include one located under the bridge where the road crosses the Little Missouri River, another at a scenic overlook just south of the national park, “where the wildlife guys say they have a lot of mortality,” and on the north and south sides of state Highway 200, which intersects with Highway 85 about halfway between Watford City and Belfield.
The department has good pronghorn antelope migration data for the areas near Highway 200, and studies in other states have shown pronghorns will only use overpasses, so that’s what will be built there. Kreft says the department also has good bighorn sheep migration data, and the migration of both antelope and bighorns is necessary to maintain the population.
Habitat fragmentation caused by the oil boom already is happening on a large scale in western North Dakota — witness the severe decline in sage grouse in the southwest corner of the state, for example — and our wildlife biologists hope these crossing will help facilitate seasonal movement of animal herds and stave off further declines in our wildlife population.
The biggest issue with the crossings is likely to be money. The crossings are expensive, maybe costing as much as a couple of million dollars each. We haven’t seen any cost estimates yet. And maintenance is expensive as well.
The department is likely going to need some support to convince DOT officials — and the governor, for whom they work — that the expense is justified. Letters in support of the crossings to the governor from concerned citizens, and especially from local wildlife clubs, would not be out of order. And the letters should come soon. Decisions on the final highway design will be made as soon as the EIS is complete, as early as mid-2016.
There also will be public meetings when the EIS is complete, and that’s a good time to show up and express your support. Keep your eyes open this coming spring for meetings in your area. Conservation groups have encouraged the DOT to hold public meetings across the state, not just in the project area, because the Bad Lands are also a high visitation area for outdoor recreation — hikers, cyclists, photographers, birders and hunters.
And conservation groups also are encouraging the DOT to take steps to preserve the integrity of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
For example, Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, has suggested lowering the speed limit for the seven-mile stretch of the road that crosses through the park and putting up signage well in advance of the entrance to the park advising drivers that they are entering a very sensitive environmental area — National Parks provide refuge to a lot of wildlife which may stray near the road. Both reasonable suggestions, I think.
In her statement to the DOT at a public hearing last year, Swenson said, “As this proposed study for expansion of Highway 85 moves forward, Badlands Conservation Alliance insists that the N.D. DOT … move forward ONLY with the aim of a state-of-the-art design that recognizes the need for flexibility, creativity, and use of the very best engineering and construction technology. This is the only way to appropriately address transportation safety needs while preserving the integrity, nay the sanctity, of the Little Missouri River Valley.”
The sanctity of the Little Missouri River Valley. An important consideration, indeed.
Here’s a question for some of you who spend a lot of time in the outdoors in the fall:
How was your pheasant season? “Good enough, I guess,” would be my response. All of us who hunt pheasants in North Dakota are loathe to say anything gloomier than that, because saying “It wasn’t all that great” might mean admitting:
- We could have shot better.
- We didn’t do our homework, contacting landowners before the season started.
- We didn’t get out of the office enough days.
- Any number of other things that were our own fault the season wasn’t better.
Well, maybe. Let’s be honest. All in all, we had a pretty good pheasant season. Considering. There were more birds than last year. But think back 15 years, to 2000, or 10 years, or even 5. Sorry, things just don’t match up.
In spite of a, b, c, or d above, we all know that there are two really good reasons for the demise of the “glory days” of North Dakota pheasant (and deer) hunting: A dramatic loss of CRP habitat, and the oil boom (Bakken Hell, as Bill Mitzel, editor of Dakota Country magazine, where this article first appeared, calls it) .
You don’t lose millions of acres of CRP without losing a lot of the critters that depended on it for food, protection from the elements and predators and nesting cover. And you can’t escape the invasion of industrialization of the prairie in the western one-third of the state if you’re a whitetail or mule deer, bighorn sheep, mallard or sharptail or sage grouse.
So this year, I went about the business of hunting pretty much as I always have, spending every available day in the field. But I didn’t put as many Ziploc bags of game in my freezer. My friends, family and neighbors didn’t get quite as many freezer bags as they used to. But I didn’t whine because I’ve lowered my expectations.
So let’s talk about the reasons for that: The loss of habitat — and the havoc being wreaked by the oil industry and the state’s lax regulation of it. I’ve talked about lax regulation numerous times and about the impact that lax regulation has had on our environment — for those of us outdoors enthusiasts, that means the places we hunt and fish — and the impact on the Badlands and the lakes, creeks, rivers and wildlife refuges in northwestern North Dakota.
I’ve also lectured on THIS before, and I’m going to do it again: This is an election year, and it is time for the sportsmen and women of North Dakota to get involved in politics. Because it is the politicians — the men and women we elect to political office — who determine what kind of hunting and fishing we are going to have in the future. And the future is as early as this year.
The politicians create or kill the programs which make habitat for our wildlife. And they regulate (or don’t regulate) the industries which destroy the habitat, pollute the creeks and rivers, foul the air, take away the dark night skies with their oil well flares, build roads through previously undisturbed prairie and send the thousands of really big trucks boiling down our back-country roads. That any wildlife even remains in western North Dakota is testament to the hardiness of the critters that have chosen the prairie as their home.
But every year now, there are fewer and fewer of those critters. And not just those we hunt. I don’t believe that my inability to hear the meadowlarks calling from fence posts on back roads of the Bad Lands can be attributed solely to a slippage in my hearing in my old age. There just aren’t as many around as there used to be, and that has wildlife professionals worried. Those meadowlarks are the “canaries in the coal mine” of the prairie, and they are fast disappearing. And that’s a direct result of habitat loss and an industrial invasion.
If you’ve been reading my articles here for a while, you know I’ve been critical of North Dakota’s elected leaders, especially those who make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission — the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner. If there was even a more aptly named trio — the Industrial Commissioners — I can’t imagine it. Their modus operandi has been to open the state’s doors wide to any industry that will come here, providing tax incentives and a willingness to overlook violations of any of our state’s environmental regulations in the name of progress and job creation.
The Industrial Commission is chaired by the governor, and he’s also the guy who hires the would-be regulators, and in 2016, our current governor is departing the scene. Good riddance. I hope he doesn’t let the Capitol doors hit him in the ass on the way out.
His administration has turned the attorney general loose on the environment, and he’s suing everyone in sight. The biggest targets of the state’s lawsuits are the two federal government agencies that are most important to those of us who enjoy spending time outdoors in North Dakota — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The EPA enforces regulations to keep our air and water clean. The Department of Agriculture, in addition to administering what’s left of the CRP program, oversees the U.S. Forest Service, which manages a million acres of mostly open range and Bad Lands in western North Dakota. The work of those agencies is critical to the future of outdoor recreation here.
By the attorney general’s own count, the state has filed at least a dozen lawsuits against those two agencies, seeking to remove the environmental protections they are charged with administering. By my count, they haven’t won any of them — yet. But the intentions are clear, and one of these days the state might just find a friendly judge, and we’ll pay the price for that. Here’s just one example.
The State of North Dakota has filed a lawsuit against the EPA to stop it from implementing a new rule designed to protect wetlands and streams. The beneficiaries of the rule are ducks and fish. But our state’s leaders apparently have not been listening to hunters and fishermen. Because a couple of months ago, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the leading voice for people who hunt and fish in America, announced the results of a nationwide survey that found that 83 percent of hunters and anglers approve of the new EPA rule that extends Clean Water Act protections to wetlands and streams, also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Here’s what the NWF reported:
“As every hunter or angler knows, ducks need healthy wetlands and fish need clean water — it’s that simple,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Everyone on Capitol Hill should take note: clean water has the bipartisan support of millions of sportsmen and women across our nation — and these men and women vote.”
The bipartisan research team of Public Opinion Strategies (R) and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D) partnered on the survey of 1,000 registered voters who also hunt or fish. The sample leaned conservative — 38 percent of those polled were Republicans, while just 28 percent were Democrats. Almost half of those surveyed (49 percent) said they considered themselves a supporter of the Tea Party. Support for this policy was strong across the political spectrum with 77 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of Independents and 97 percent of Democrats in favor.
The NWF’s O’Mara said the rule is not a partisan issue. “The survey’s results show there is ‘an incredible disconnect’ between what groups ‘more interested in politics’ are saying about the rule in Washington, D.C., and what American sportsmen think is acceptable.”
So in North Dakota, which probably has more hunters and fishermen per capita than any other state, the lawsuit to try to prevent the Clean Water Act rules from taking effect is puzzling. But not as puzzling as the lawsuit against the Forest Service, which seeks to open up all of our roadless areas of the Bad Lands to development.
I’ve written before about the 50,000 acres of the Bad Lands — out of a total of 1,000,000 acres that the Forest Service administers — that remain closed to roads and oil development, but open to hunters, hikers, photographers, birders and anyone else who will visit them on foot or horseback.
The lawsuit by the state and four county commissions seeks to remove the road-building restrictions on those acres and let the state and the counties put roads through them. They are the last few places of “wilderness” in the state. They are used by hunters, who seek a place where no giant oilfield trucks roar through the draws they are still-hunting, and photographers, who don’t want to disturb the golden eagles feeding their young in nests high on a Bad Lands butte.
Surprisingly, these roadless areas are the same ones that Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem proposed be listed for protection under the “Extraordinary Places” plan he submitted to the Industrial Commission in 2014. When I asked him about that seeming inconsistency, he said that lawsuit is about “state sovereignty,” which apparently outweighs environmental, cultural and historical preservation. My opinion: It is homage to Big Oil, which wants to drill every acre of North Dakota and which will finance his 2016 campaign for governor.
Yes, Stenehjem’s running for governor, so the hypocrisy in his actions bears pointing out. He could very well be the man hiring the oil industry regulators for the next eight years.
Choosing political leaders is important, and we should make sure our voice is heard. So in 2016, when the candidates for governor of North Dakota — and other offices, like U.S. Congress and Senate — come to our towns, we need to ask them how they will vote on issues important to us.
For example, will our next governor support rules to keep our clean air and water — and protect critical wildlife areas? Will our congressional representative and U.S. senators fight to restore the CRP program? If that’s not possible, can the governor find money in his budget for a state CRP program?
By my count, there are somewhere around 100,000 North Dakotans who hunt and/or fish. And vote. We need to be heard, and we need to make sure the politicians hear us.